Many painters work alone, standing before an easel. Among the revelations in Eiko and Koma’s bewitching Cambodian Stories, An Offering of Painting and Dance is the vision of painting as a collaborative performance. The duo developed the piece in workshops at the Reyum Institute of Art & Culture in Pnom Penh, and the nine art students and recent graduates who’ve been touring the U.S. in it are not only selling their canvases in theater lobbies and decorating the stage with them, they also create two artworks onstage at each performance.
After solemnly lining up to tell us their names and a few terse facts about their families and their aspirations, eight young men ranging in age from 17 to 20 yank down and roll up the red-stippled canvas hanging behind them, then cart it away. Two of them then sketch outlines on a smaller blank canvas laid on the sand-covered floor, while others carry in paint cans, brushes, and a scaffold made of tree trunks that’s the size and shape of a double bed. Using mainly yellow, like most of the men’s sarongs, and coral, like the garment of soloist Setpheap (“Peace”) Sorn, they set to work, swarming over the scaffold, hooking their feet over the logs for balance, ducking under one another’s arms or legs to reach down to the rapidly evolving design. Two labor so close together that they cross brushes. It’s painting as dance.
They pay no attention when 16-year-old Chakreya So, the only female in the group, enters walking slowly sideways, her arms stretched wide, wrists flexed, her feet dragging little mounds of sand. She introduces herself, adding that when she dances she imagines herself walking in water. The music, composed or selected by Sam-Ang Sam, segues into a pop song, “Take Me to Your Heart,” and the canvas is lifted to display the result of the furious activity: a portrait of a woman wearing yellow pants and shirt. She’s solider and more modern than the women depicted in the rows of very large paintings that flank the stage and function as wings; those images (all on stage right wearing a shoulder drape, all on the left bare-breasted) are more elegant, with calm gazes and fingers curled back like apsaras, the heavenly dancing girls of Cambodian legend.
None of these Cambodian artists had trained as dancers before meeting Eiko and Koma, and they’ve accommodated in their own ways to their mentors’ aesthetic of slow, pressured yet delicate movement. When Sorn dances alone, his long, slim torso arches until you can see his ribcage through his skin; slowly lifting his shoulder and arm as he turns, he resembles for a moment a preening bird. So reaches her arms across her body, against the direction of her gaze, as if pushing the past away.
That past, for Cambodians of this generation, is shadowed. When they itemize their family members, you imagine how many elders may have perished during Pol Pot’s murderous regime. When Eiko and Koma appear, their faces as always painted gray-white, they could be ghosts. Some of the performers gesture extravagantly toward Eiko as if frozen in impossible longing. One man, his hair already streaked with yellow paint, crawls slowly along, his forehead pushing into the sand. Sometimes we hear neither the pretty songs nor the classical Cambodian music, but the night voices of crickets.
Whoever the choreographers may represent, they guide the young performers—leading them onstage, forming some into pairs, supporting them when they falter. Death makes an appearance, as it has in most of Eiko and Koma’s works. Sora and So dance reticently together, touching only at the end when they take hands and she leans her head against his shoulder. One by one, the paintings on either side fall slowly down into crumpled piles of canvas, and So collapses onto one of them. Two of the men carefully lay the young woman out and Eiko lies down beside her.
But rebirth isn’t far behind. Lighting designer David Ferri brings up the lights until the yellow sand shimmers. Everyone exits; then the men return with paint and a higher, vertical scaffold. They attack the shiny black backcloth with brushes and hands, slapping the paint on. Colors erupt in waves—blossom, spout, swirl. The new artwork descends briefly to reveal more paintings of women behind it; the large flanking pictures are pulled up again (not only do the painters dance, the paintings themselves do). The performers bow solemnly, splashed with color.
At the beginning of Cambodian Stories, Sora walks along the line of men, painting a few curving lines on each bare back. The colorless liquid glistens briefly and then becomes invisible. That sense of consecration persists through the work, perhaps to honor Ingrid Muan—the co-founder, with Daravuth Ly, of the Reyum Institute—who died suddenly last year and to whom the piece is dedicated. What Eiko and Koma have achieved with these vibrant young artists is an offering to reborn Cambodia itself and to the ghosts of its past.